When transforming a beloved animated classic into a contemporary live-action film, do you handle it with kid gloves?
Director Kenneth Branagh’s remake of the 1950 Disney original keeps the gloves on, in a formal sense, by finding Cinderella‘s essential fairy tale heart and filling it with the mythical magic of Thor, the lightness of Shakespeare’s comedies and shimmering yet practically grounded effects, all spun together like cotton candy from the early days of Technicolor. To enhance the nostalgia implicit in the live-action reboot, Branagh chose to shoot on film with Haris Zambarloukos behind the camera. Costumes were designed by The Young Victoria Oscar winner Sandy Powell and the extensive sets were rendered by Dante Ferretti and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, who won Oscars for Hugo and The Aviator.
Visual effects company MPC worked closely with Branagh to complete the 80 unique assets and some 500 of the film’s 800 practically grounded VFX shots that included extensive creature work, digital doubles, CG vegetation and trees, large environmental comps, a fully CG palace and a variety of set extensions. MPC VFX supervisor Patrick Ledda said the entire team paid special attention to the iconic transformation scenes when glass slippers, a ravishing gown and a horse-drawn gilt carriage magically appear before devolving back into the rags, mice and pumpkin from which they sprang.
“As soon as we finished shooting, we sat down with Ken and went through the entire movie, looking at what we shot and what we didn’t shoot and what we would like to fill with visual effects,” Ledda said in a telephone call from MPC’s Montreal facility, which did the lion’s share of the effects work. “For the transformations, in particular, he wanted to make sure that, although the mice were to look fairly photo-real, they carried a little bit of a human element with them throughout, which has a kind of old-school animated quality to it. We went through many iterations when they transformed into the horses because he wanted something quite fun and light. He didn’t want it to look painful at all and wanted the mice to act as if they were very excited to become big, strong, beautiful white horses.”
Although the shots in question move very quickly in real time, Ledda said the VFX team decided to tease out different levels of the transformation, the intrinsic core of the film. “We played with the mice first enjoying the cantor of their newly extended legs and their luxurious manes,” he explained. “Even when the lizard turns into the coachman, he has distinct stages where he grows a cravat and hat and shoes too big as he grows to size.” Not everything they developed made it into the final cut. “We had many more sequences but Ken wanted to keep the pace very fast to match the heightened excitement of the scene itself.”
Branagh summoned his early Shakespearean training during a visit with the effects artists at MPC Montreal. “It was so great for them to not just meet him but to actually work with him,” said Ledda. “He gets really involved in the way he acts out scenes and characters, and he would show us exactly how a lizard would move, and then how a lizard turning into a proper footman would act.” It was also rewarding to work with a director who brings so much to the table, he said. “It was definitely an enjoyable experience to work with a director who is surprisingly knowledgable about VFX, especially someone like Ken, with his formal background. But he has obviously learned a lot making the Thor films.”
Ledda said Cinderella’s own transformation in that critical scene was a very complex setup involving multiple takes and digital doubles. “Lily James (known for her recent work on Downton Abbey) was marvelous on set but it took months for us to achieve the final look in post,” he said. “Throughout the many takes, she essentially had to match her performance so we could swap out dresses without literally swapping her out.” The real crystal glass slipper, designed for the film by Swarovski, presented another set of challenges. “There were a lot of shots in which we had to create a digital version of it, including the iconic shot where she loses her shoe. But — and don’t tell the kids — the actual shoe was simply too small and too rigid to fit on Lily’s foot, so we created a digital version for the moments she is wearing it. All we had was the real shoe as a reference and it was a big challenge to match it. We took lots of video and stills and worked hard to make it look as natural as possible.”
Throughout the process the effects team referenced many 18th and 19th century landscape paintings, particularly those depicting the British Isles. “There was this idea that the story was somehow based in England, although the country is never mentioned, so we looked at the work of a lot of British painters to see how they dealt with landscapes and light,” said Ledda. “Everyone at work was very familiar with all of the Disney cartoons at that point. We certainly looked at all the fairytales, in particular, to get inspired.” A few embedded Easter eggs pay homage to the Disney legacy. “When the Fairy Godmother swirls her wand for the last time before disappearing, the sparkles arch in a shape similar to the Disney logo,” he said. “But we definitely wanted to put our own stamp on the film, so we were consciously trying not to pull too much from the animated original.”
The decision to shoot on film with widescreen anamorphic lenses, said Ledda, was a defining artistic choice for Branagh’s clean, saturated look. “Ken was pretty adamant that we keep it in that traditional style, and it resulted in such a beautiful texture, especially the skin tones.” The MPC VFX team typically works with footage shot through spherical lenses digitally and on Super 35 mm film, and Ledda said the defocus and lens flares you get when shooting with anamorphic lenses required a slight shift in workflow during post. “But the distortions and imperfections you get with film can be really beautiful, so we had to add a lot of those distortions along the edges of fully CG shots to make them work better with the live shots.”
After being on set throughout production, Ledda returned to MPC in Montreal for post, speaking daily with Charles Henley, the film’s Pinewood-based production VFX supervisor. During the DI, MPC was able to see how the palate intensified during the grade. “They gave us a grade reference and we knew fairly early on what kind of look the film was going to have so we could apply the grade internally as we worked and get a vague idea how the final would look.” Ledda said there are also quite a few fully CG action shots where MPC replicated the live-action grade.
Apart from working with the Montreal facility’s brand new team and reimagining screen moments already known to millions, Ledda said one of the project’s bigger challenges was finding the right visual tone for Cinderella’s house. “Half of it was built practically and we built the other half digitally,” he said. “The initial house looked a little bit too Victorian, and a bit too drab, so we embellished it with flowers and other colorful trims to make it pop on screen.” All of the interior scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios in England and exteriors at locations nearby. A number of additional aerial plates were shot over the English coastline near Devon.
MPC considers its work on Cinderella — the largest project the relatively new Montreal facility has tackled to date — a major milestone. Several proprietary techniques, developed in its robust R&D division, were created specifically for the film. “We used a pretty new approach to create the mice fur that was much faster to render and pretty convincing,” Ledda said. “It was one of the first times we fully ray-traced fur.” A vastly improved pipeline and new workflows also made it possible to render Cinderella‘s swaths of CG vegetation completely in 3D, he added. “Traditionally, we would have built the trees and all the vegetation across these wide shots with digital mapping, since you are working with huge amounts of data. But were able to add the full, luscious 3D detail on every branch and leaf. With this new process, which was quite unheard of until about a year ago, you can start with something much more physical and then figure out how to make it look pretty and slightly more painterly. You aren’t stuck with something you can’t finesse.”
“We always try to develop something new, no matter the scope of the project,” he added. “It’s a constant thing for us. But working on Cinderella was doubly rewarding, because everyone involved wanted to make a classic that would stand the test of time.”